Magic mushroom compound linked to improved treatment of depression and cancer

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Can magic mushrooms help people suffering from depression and cancer? Researchers at Sunstone Therapies believe so. A recent phase II clinical trial has revealed that psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound found in certain mushrooms, may offer significant benefits for individuals with cancer and major depression.

Psilocybin works by binding to a specific serotonin receptor in the brain, influencing mood, cognition, and perception. Despite its classification as a Schedule I drug, implying that it carries no accepted medical use and a high abuse potential, recent trials have shown the safety and potential efficacy of psilocybin-assisted therapy. This approach combines psilocybin with psychological support from trained therapists and is being researched for various mental health conditions, including anxiety, addiction, and PTSD.

In this trial, 30 adult cancer patients with major depression received a single 25-milligram dose of synthesized psilocybin, followed by individual and group therapy sessions. Researchers highlighted the unique group approach of the study, where cohorts of three to four patients received psilocybin in adjacent rooms simultaneously, followed by therapy sessions both individually and as a group.

The results were promising. After eight weeks, patients’ depression severity scores dropped significantly, with 80 percent of participants showing a sustained response to treatment, and 50 percent achieving full remission of depressive symptoms after one week, lasting for eight weeks. Side-effects like nausea and headache were generally mild.

'Magic' mushrooms: psychedelic psilocybin
(© robtek – stock.adobe.com)

“As an oncologist for many years, I experienced the frustration of not being able to provide cancer care that treats the whole person, not just the tumor,” says study lead author Dr. Manish Agrawal, an oncologist at Sunstone Therapies, in a media release. “This was a small, open-label study and more research needs to be done, but the potential is significant and could have implications for helping millions of patients with cancer who are also struggling with the severe psychological impact of the disease.”

A second study, led by Dr. Yvan Beaussant from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, involved exit interviews with trial participants. These interviews revealed positive experiences and emphasized the importance of the structured, supportive setting. Participants noted that the group setting eased their fears and prepared them for therapy, while the combination of individual and group sessions provided a balance of introspection and communal support.

“As a hematologist and palliative care physician and researcher, it was profoundly moving and encouraging to witness the magnitude of participants’ improvement and the depth of their healing journey following their participation in the trial. Participants overwhelmingly expressed positive sentiments about their experience of psilocybin-assisted therapy while emphasizing the importance of the supportive, structured setting in which it took place,” explains Dr. Beaussant. “Many described an ongoing transformative impact on their lives and well-being more than two months after having received psilocybin, feeling better equipped to cope with cancer and, for some, end of life.”

Before this therapy can be integrated into clinical practice, further studies are needed with larger patient groups and control arms to compare its effects with other treatments or placebo.

The study is published in the journal Cancer.

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